Stop-motion animated gem is pure Wes Anderson
There are few working directors with as distinctive a style as Wes Anderson, and he’s thusly polarizing. To paraphrase a Mitch Hedberg joke, people either love Wes Anderson or hate him or think that he’s OK.
“Isle of Dogs” is pure Wes Anderson. If you hate what he’s selling, this one won’t change your mind, but for fans (this one included), only one word comes to mind: delightful.
Of course, Anderson’s distinctively quirky style is rife for parody, from his famously obsessive symmetrical camera shots to his often esoteric dialogue style. “Isle of Dogs” also marks his second foray into stop-motion animation, although this one is far less kid-friendly than “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” if more for its complex themes than its content.
The setting is a near-future Japan where an outbreak of canine flu has led those in charge to quarantine all dogs on a garbage-strewn island off the coast. Domesticated dogs are airlifted from their owners, and a “Lord of the Flies” (er, dogs?) society forms.
The dogs form packs, as dogs are want to do. One small group is under the de facto leadership of Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), a former stray who is more grizzled than the others (Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Jeff Goldblum).
Just as the dogs are adjusting to a life without humans, one arrives in the form of a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who has piloted a stolen plane to try to find his beloved dog, Spots.
This world is a quirky dystopia you’d expect from no one except Anderson, although we can’t discuss further without bringing up some of the backlash that has preceded the movie.
Anderson’s dog characters speak English, but most of the humans speak Japanese. There are no subtitles and only occasional translation, so in many instances English-speaking audiences are just taking in the inflection of the lines.
“I wish somebody spoke his language,” one dog quips about Atari, which really sets up the narrative trick I think Anderson was trying to use here. The audience generally understands a much as the dogs do.
Whether you think “Isle of Dogs” is culturally insensitive may have a lot to do with what you think of Anderson. His human characters, especially adults, are often presented as odd and quirky. In this context, that can sometimes be problematic.
But for those on Anderson’s wavelength, this is among his best films — consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but also warm and heartfelt. If you already want to see “Isle of Dogs,” you’ll love it.
Also, this is the most fun I’ve had with a voice cast, and it may be more fun to wait for the reveals in the credits.